For many people, species on the verge of extinction are "out of sight, out of mind," but on Endangered Species Day the National Geographic Society is making sure that no one will be able to look away.
Instead of images of celebrities, clothing and products, on Friday billboards in Time Square and other major cities will feature animals from the National Geographic's Photo Ark project, which aims to document every species living in the world’s zoos and other protected areas, before they are gone forever. Throughout the summer, more than 45,000 digital screens across the country will feature Photo Ark images as part of the National Geographic Society and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), #SaveTogether campaign aimed at saving species at risk in the wild.
The photos in Times Square "put the plight of other species we share the planet with in full view," according to Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer and founder of the Photo Ark.
He points to biologists' predictions that half of the world's species could become extinct by the middle of the century.
"We are painfully unaware," Sartore said. "Most people drive to work in a climate controlled car, they look forward to the weekend and ball game, but they don't understand that literally the house is on fire. It's folly to think we could doom half of all to species to extinction, and we will be just fine."
The Photo Ark project features photos of animals on a black background, as they stare directly into the camera.
Sartore started the Photo Ark project 12 years ago, when he was caring for his wife who had breast cancer. For the first time in years, he wasn't traveling around the globe taking photos, but was left to reflect on his career.
"I thought these stories come and go in a month, but is there any real conservation value or lasting effect? No," he said.
He promised himself that if his wife recovered (she did), he would do studio portraits of animals.
"You can look these animals in the eye," he said. "The black background gives the animal equal size and importance, so a mouse is every bit as amazing as a polar bear."
With over 6,500 portraits down, Sartore said they hope to take pictures of every species in human care on the planet. The photos are meant to inspire people to save animals while they still have a chance.
Sartore said the Times Square takeover forces people to realize that they can make a difference each time they spend a dollar, by ensuring that they are purchasing products from companies that create their products and food in a sustainable way. While many of the animals at peril may seem far away, on a local level, people can support their zoos and join the Wildlife Conservation Society, he said.
"The good news is that we can save most of these species, but we have to pay attention and leave some habitat intact; we can't convert the entire surface of the Earth to farm or cities and remain unscathed," he said.
The #SaveTogether campaign will continue throughout 2017 on printed and digital billboards, bus shelters and other out of home advertising formats donated by OAAA. You can donate here.
Follow Mary Bowerman on Twitter: @MaryBowerman